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October 26, 2007

John S. Watts’ Legal Journal-El Paso & Santa Fe 1872

254. WATTS, John Sebrie. Manuscript legal journal. 1872. [152] pp. (of which 103 are written upon), ruled wove paper. 8vo (19 x 14.5 cm), contemporary black roan over brown, dark blue, and pink marbled boards, upper cover with Watts’ paper label written in ink: “John S. Watts Atty. El Paso Docket....” Upper cover almost detached, binding worn, endpapers browned and with additional pencil and ink notes, last few pages damaged at outer margins (affecting only a few words). Except the damage at the back of the volume as noted, interior is very good.

            A revealing journal documenting John S. Watts’s activities as an attorney practicing in El Paso, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Entries include case summaries, case law and precedents to be used in Watts’s legal arguments, extensive coverage and documentation relative to his role as both attorney and defendant in an El Paso case involving the Ponce de León land grant and El Paso civic leader Joseph Magoffin (pp. [63]-[98]), and the draft of a lengthy petition to the U.S. Congress (pp. [116]-[137]) seeking relief from claims upon Watts and others as sureties for the bond of office on James L. Collins as Receiver of Public Moneys and United States Designated Depository in Santa Fe. The claims stem from the robbery of the Depository and Collins’s murder during the theft. Near the end (pp. [148]-[149]) is the draft of a document on lands belonging to the heirs of Samuel A. Maverick. Dated entries are from mid-1872.

            In the Ponce de León land case, Watts records details of the trial and supporting information. Joseph Magoffin claims that Watts has no legal title to a 1/8 interest in the Ponce grant that Watts apparently purchased in 1864. Watts, on the other hand, is countering that it is he who can trace title back to Juan María Ponce de León, and it is Magoffin who has no legal interest in the 1/8 share. Watts records testimony by witnesses who knew Ponce de León and could describe original landmarks and witnesses who knew James Magoffin, pioneer El Paso merchant and Joseph’s father, and could state what he had said about his possession of the land. Watts also transcribes a copy of the metes and bounds and a sketch of the original Ponce survey. Watts’ summary points made to the jury are also in the journal.

            The Ponce de León grant, which is in the center of present-day downtown El Paso, has been the subject of many conflicting claims and lawsuits, the last of which was not settled until 1967. The original 1827 grant to Ponce de León was for two caballerías (slightly over 200 acres) on the north side of the Rio Grande. The grant was officially augmented in 1830 when a flood moved the riverbed to the south. After Ponce de León’s death in 1852, his wife and daughter, fearing that post-war Texas would not recognize their title, sold the land (now stated to be 599 acres), and over the years portions and interests were sold. Subsequently, as the Handbook of Texas Online (Ponce de León Land Grant) says: “For various reasons, mostly attempts by persons with no claim to the land trying to discredit boundary lines because of the land’s increasing value, the grant was embroiled in lawsuits throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.”  The Magoffin-Watts litigation is part of this whole cloth.

            The James L. Collins affair is also interesting. As Watts’s petition states, Collins was the Receiver of moneys at the U.S. Depository in Santa Fe. He was killed by a group of robbers when the noises they made while burglarizing the vault of the depository awakened him and he went to investigate. In addition to the details of the burglary, the petition details how “the high character of James L. Collins for honesty and fidelity in the discharge of his duty...for more than thirty years prior to his death in Santa Fe was of so well known and high a character and his business skills so well known as to rebut all just grounds to suppose that the said James L. Collins had not in all respects fully and justly discharged his duties.” It also presents his gallantry as a volunteer with Doniphan in the Mexican-American War and in the Union army in the Civil War.

            An intriguing non-legal entry is Watts’s observations during a visit across the Rio Grande to the Mexican city of El Paso (now Ciudad Juarez). Seated in the Plaza, he describes the appeal of the city and its plaza and remarks, “Taken it all in all it is the neatest most tasty and easy looking Plaza I had seen in New Mexico or this side of the city of Chihuahua & all this is due to the taste energy and...spirit of Don Mariano Seminega (i.e., Mariano Samaniego Delgado) Prefect of the city.” But it is not all delightful—Watts decries the behavior of a group of American Buffalo Soldiers who had come over for a night on the town and “are now passing by me using such language as is disgraceful to the name of soldier, and the government who pays & uniforms these worthless scalawags.”

            John Sebrie Watts (1816-1876) was a lawyer, jurist, and land speculator. Originally from Indiana, he graduated from the University of Indiana and thereafter studied law and was admitted to the bar. He served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1846 and 1847, but shortly thereafter he determined that his real future lay in the Southwest and went to New Mexico, where he served as an associate justice of the United States Court in the Territory of New Mexico from 1851-1854. He served a term as New Mexico Representative to the U.S. Congress in 1861-1863, and as chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1868-1869. Watts was apparently one of many who saw the new U.S. Southwest as an opportunity to make their fortune. In addition to the Ponce de León grant discussed above, he was embroiled in the Baca Float No. 3 grant saga in northeastern New Mexico from 1863 onwards. While ostensibly representing the Baca heirs, he was, as the tale unfolded, more concerned about his own interests in the lands he represented than about the interests of his clients. The Baca Float litigation lasted into the period of the First World War, and was not finally settled until the last Baca heirs and settlers were dispossessed of their land in 1921.

            As Thomas Sheridan presents John Watts’ involvement in New Mexico land affairs and the Baca Float No. 3 in his Historic Resource Study: Tumacacori National Historical Park (2004). Chapter 7 (

John S. Watts, the attorney representing the Baca heirs, selected Baca Float No. 3 on June 17, 1863. Originally from Indiana, Watts descended on New Mexico for the same reasons Stephen Benton Elkins, Thomas Benton Catron, and other members of the so-called Santa Fe Ring did—because land-grant litigation had turned the territory into a golden cash cow for lawyers and their political allies. Watts represented Ramón Vigil in his successful attempt to win confirmation of a fraudulent grant along the Río Grande where Los Alamos is today. He also served as associate justice and later chief justice on the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court. In the late 1850s, while seated on the court, Watts informed a Congressional committee that he was representing forty-three land-grant cases as well. The New Mexico legal system apparently did not worry much about conflict of interest during those avaricious days.


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